II. What are the origins and sources of the traditional self-mutilation story?

 

From the documents and the circumstances it is evident that Paul Gauguin, Vincent’s painter colleague and housemate in the Yellow House in Arles, was the first person to tell the world that Vincent van Gogh had cut off his ear himself. And the first person to hear that story was Joseph d’Ornano, the “Commissaire Central” of Arles, who interrogated Gauguin in the morning of 24 December 1888, under the suspicion of the (attempted) murder of his friend. At that time, Van Gogh was unconscious and presumed dead, and there was no other witness. Gauguin succeeded in convincing the police officer that he had nothing to do with it, that his “mad” Dutch colleague had injured himself, and he was released when it was discovered that Van Gogh was still alive. Immediately after his release Gauguin hurried to the Hospice of Arles and told the same story to the young physician Dr. Felix Rey, who was on duty on that Christmas Eve and thus became the second person to hear about Vincent’s “self-mutilation” (see Stokvis, Benno: "Vincent van Gogh in Arles"; in "Kunst und Künstler", vol 27 (1929), pp. 470 – 474).

This is how the story found its way into the medical files, into the local press and into the public. The source of this famous story however was exclusively Paul Gauguin.

There exist two written versions of Gauguin’s first-hand account of the event:

Version 1 in a letter of Vincent’s painter-friend Emile Bernard to the author and art critic Albert Aurier, dated 1 January 1889, where Bernard quotes in direct speech what Gauguin had told him a few days after his return to Paris3; and
Version 2: a long passage in Gauguin’s memoirs “Avant et Après”, written in 1903 on Hiva Oa in French Polynesia.4

Gauguin’s narrative runs roughly along the following lines: There had been growing tensions and disputes between the two artists in the Yellow House (the place where they both lived at the time); Van Gogh’s behaviour had become increasingly strange, Gauguin had decided to leave him and to return to Paris. When he informed his colleague about this on 23 December 1888, Van Gogh went wild. In the evening, Gauguin stepped out for a walk, Van Gogh followed him, handed him a newspaper cutting with the phrase “The murderer took flight” and said “You are silent, but I shall be silent, too” (=first version, underlined in the original letter but not mentioned in Gauguin’s memoirs), or went for Gauguin with a razor knife, which Gauguin repelled by his firm look (second version). Gauguin decided to spend the night at a hotel, while Van Gogh returned home, took a razor and cut off his ear in a clean cut (first version: “s’était tranché net l’oreille”), close to the head (second version: “se coupa l’oreille juste au ras de la tête”). Then he stopped the flow of blood, wrapped the severed ear in an envelope, put on a Basque beret, walked to a brothel in the red-light district (about 350 metres away), handed over his ear with biblical words to a girl (who fainted immediately), went back home, closed the blinds and set a lamp on a table near the window (second version), and went to bed in his upstairs bedroom, where he was found by the police the following morning. Gauguin asserted that he had no idea of all this when he came home to the Yellow House in the morning of 24 December 1888, where he was arrested and interrogated by the police, but nonetheless managed to give these detailed accounts of the events.

 


 

3. Emile Bernard to Gabriel-Albert Aurier, 1 Jan. 1889; The NewYork Public Library ((Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations); facsimile and transcription in: Bakker/Tilborgh/Prins 2016, p. 132-135

4. "Gauguin 1996"= Paul Gauguin, Avant et Après (1903), facsimile edition: Leipzig 1918; English (USA): Gauguin's intimate journals, translated by Van Wyck Brooks, preface by Emile Gauguin; New York (Boni & Liveright) 1921; unabridged republication as paperback: Mineola NY (Dover Publications) 1996; p. 11-12

 

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